What is Haiti like?

My first opportunity to experience Haiti and serve there came 3 months to the day after the January 12, 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people and reduced much of the capital city to rubble.  (Today I’m back in Haiti exactly 11 months after my first visit and 14 months after the earthquake.)  Seeing the destruction from the air when flying in was gut wrenching.  It sobered me; it left me numb.

On that first trip, the drive from the airport to the guesthouse at the headquarters campus of the Methodist Church of Haiti (Église Méthodiste d’Haïti) in Petionville was a wild ride.  Greater Port-au-Prince is a city of 2 million people (post-earthquake) in a land area perhaps one fifth that of Kansas City.  The population density was striking to this Midwesterner.  People were everywhere.  People of every size, type, and description were in constant motion in all directions simultaneously.  The experience produced sensory and cognitive overload.  We drove past goats, dogs, and chickens.  Earthquake damage was obvious, with piles of rubble in the streets that our driver, Eric, and everyone else avoided almost without noticing.  Eric chose a street up a very steep hill that recalled some unpaved four-wheel-drive roads I’ve used in Colorado.  Traffic was heavy and the rules of the road, if any, weren’t apparent.

Haiti is a very tough place.  They have all the same types of infrastructure as the US – roads, cell phones, water, waste disposal, Internet, electricity, and so on – and all of it is broken beyond description.  The infrastructure is a huge drag on productivity and complicates every aspect of daily life.  Everything, I mean everything is hard there.  Getting even simple things done, such as a trip to the market, often turns into a time-consuming ordeal.  The grossly inadequate infrastructure drives up the cost of everything.  Consequently, Haiti is an oddly expensive place to live and serve and try to get things done.  If you imagine things must be cheap in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, you would be wrong.

Garbage overflows dumpsters and rots in the streets for weeks before being picked up by one of too few truck crews.  Untreated overflow from outhouses and septic systems runs in ditches next to the streets.  Litter is ubiquitous.  I am struck with the recognition that only the wealthy can afford to be environmentalists.

The electrical grid was unstable even before the earthquake and power generation capacity was and is woefully inadequate.  When things are going well, utility power is available 30%-50% of the time.  When things are going badly, power can be out for a week or more.

All Internet Service Providers and service types available in Haiti are awful, if shockingly expensive.  They all have one or more major drawbacks in speed, packet loss, availability, latency, jitter, and customer service quality.  Compared to the service we have in our homes and on our cell phones, Haitian Internet services are 2 to 5 times as expensive and 1/10th to 1/30th of the speed.

Governmental corruption provides ample cause for outrage, but it’s nothing compared to governmental incompetence.  In Haiti’s hour of greatest need, President Preval’s leadership was not merely weak, it was shamefully absent.  He wasn’t seen in public for days and left the Haitian people to fend for themselves.  Haiti has been described as a “Republic of NGOs” because Non-Governmental Organizations are the only functioning institutions of social welfare with money and the capacity to get things done.  Haiti is full of irony and paradox.  On the one hand, NGOs are essential.  On the other hand, they (we) enable a broken system to remain broken.  Haiti defies easy answers.

Haiti’s education system is equally broken.  On my first trip, I asked the guesthouse manager, “If you were queen of Haiti, what would you do first?”  Her answer was thoughtful: “Public education.”  There is very little public education in Haiti.  School fees for a semester average something like $35, which doesn’t sound too bad until you compare it to the average daily wage of $2.  Family sizes are typically large.  As the younger children begin to enter school, families often stop paying for the education of older children, resulting in poor literacy, inadequate skills, and bad economic prospects for a lifetime.

So that, in summary, is my experience of Haiti.  The scope and scale of the need is practically unbounded.  We, like so many before us, are now engaged, spending and being spent as we work alongside Haitians to make our world just a bit more like the Kingdom of God.  The work is as maddening as it is rewarding.  You will experience every emotion from anger to sorrow to helplessness to satisfaction to triumph and back again in the space of just a few minutes.  Haiti is compelling.  The people will get to you.  The place will get to you.  I wish I could describe it, but I can’t seem to find the words.